Steve Case of AOL-Time Warner
salutes Thomas Middelhoff of

Holocaust Survivors
Honor a German!


N all my years of covering events, never have I witnessed such effusive praise for a guest of honor burdened with such controversial credentials: not only is he a German but the giant media company he heads helped Hitler in his war against the Jews by publishing Nazi propaganda.

PR maven Howard Rubenstein welcomed the cream of New York Jewish society to the Waldorf-Astoria where the entertainment, media and communications division of UJA-Federation bestowed its prestigious Steven J. Ross Award upon Thomas Middelhoff, chief executive of Bertelsmann, the German media conglomerate.

Rabbi Arthur Schneier of Park East Synagogue and a Holocaust survivor from Vienna, made hamotzi [blessing over bread], so at least that part of the evening was kosher.

The rest of the program seemed mind-boggling. New York Jews, including a smattering of survivors, paying tribute to a German?

In Elie Wiesel’s mind  “German” and “Nazi” were interchangeable.

“Certain words will never heal,” he said. “There was a time when meeting a German caused fear and trembling. In the camps we called them Germans, not Nazis.”

Ernest Michel, who throughout his professional career had served as executive vice president of UJA-Federation, must have thought this evening was a nightmare.

FIFTY-SIX years ago the
survivors of the Shoah,
myself included, were in
a state of shock and
despair. We lacked faith
and hope in our ability
to rebuild our lives.
Aided by men and
women of generosity,
who understood the
principle, “We are
responsible for one
another,” the United
Jewish Appeal became
the lifeline for the
displaced and immigrants
seeking freedom and
human dignity.

Rabbi Arthur Schneier

He shuddered as he recalled an encounter with a German diplomat in New York. They had forged such a deep friendship that Michel invited the official home for a Shabbat dinner.

Next day the diplomat sent a note of gratitude: “To be in your home was a moving experience. But you should know that you had in your house the son of an SS guard in Auschwitz.”

Eli Wiesel and Ernie Michel are well acquainted with SS guards in Auschwitz. They both were slave laborers there for I.G. Farben.

“I will never forget nor will I ever forgive,” Michel declared as Middelhoff sat in stony silence.

Nevertheless, Wiesel and Michel had to admit that the Germans are making sincere efforts at reconciliation with the Jewish people.

“In 1951,” Michel observed, “Konrad Adenauer began negotiations which amounted to billions of dollars for Israel and Holocaust survivors. Today Germany is Israel’s biggest economic supporter.

“Germany is the only country, outside Israel, where study of the Holocaust is mandatory in every school.”

Wiesel elaborated on Michel’s theme that we are living in a different world, even though we still carry the burden of memory.

“I don’t want memories to be based on hatred. The children of killers are not killers but children. I am against collective punishment.”

A large factor in Wiesel’s decision to participate in this dinner was because Middlehoff’s conscience moved him to study the Hitler era, especially the role Bertelsmann played in advancing Nazi ideology.

“As a result,” Wiesel said, “he has created a special project to publish the memoirs of Holocaust survivors.”

Such a project has been Wiesel’s dream for many years. He has collected thousands of personal manuscripts from survivors, but publishers were not interested. The said the market was saturated with Holocaust books.

“Tom got interested,” Wiesel said, “and now Random House [which Bertelsmann owns] has pledged $1 million. It’s not enough but it’s start.”

Looking directly at Middelhoff, Wiesel added, “You have shown concern for my people. You can educate a new generation of German people so they don’t succumb to racism, fanaticism and anti-Semitism. You have accepted the responsibility to perpetuate our memory and give meaning to the Holocaust for generations to come. Through you I place my hope in the future of German youth.”

Jerry Levin (l-r), Elie Wiesel and Steve Case
at UJA-Federation dinner.

Now that Holocaust survivors Eli Wiesel and Ernie Michel finally made it kosher to reconcile with a new generation of Germans, NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw led a parade of heavy hitters to sing the praises of Tom Middelhoff.

These included Gerald Levin, CEO of AOL Time Warner, whose son Lee is studying to be a rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary. It was a new Levin – his bushy mustache was gone.

Levin quoted from Nathan the Wise, written in 1779 by German playwright Gotthold Lessing, who tried to depict the differences between Christian and Jew.

At the end the Christian said, “I look at you and see a Christian,” and the Jew replied, “I look at you and see a Jew.”

“Thomas,” Levin concluded, “your moral compass and integrity transcend the horrors of our mutual history and make you a Jew.”

Not to be outdone, Edgar Bronfman Jr., whose scraggly whiskers were also gone, toasted Middelhoff as “a man who allows our community to continue in our pain and memory and also reaches out in friendship.”

For additional toasts to the German media mogul, Brokaw called upon AOL Time Warner co-CEO Bob Pittman and the company’s top honcho, Steve Case.

PERHAPS out of deference
to Holocaust survivors, the
dais of the UJA-Federation
dinner honoring
Bertelsmann displayed no
German symbol. There
were two American flags,
two Israeli flags, but no
German standard.

“Even though it was a Tuesday,” Brokaw said, “serving as emcee was like being a Shabbos Goy.”

“I’m eminently suitable for the role,” he added. “Once I was driving to the 92nd St. Y for a function. I called to say I’d be late. The switchboard said the office was closed on account of Scotch. I was pleased that I could tell her it’s Succot, not Scotch.”

Speaking for his generation Middelhoff, born in 1953, said he was sorry for “the nightmare of the horrible Holocaust. Since it cannot be undone, we must look forward and understand what happened and why.

“I make this promise to Elie and Ernie: “Bertelsmann will never stand silent when people promote social injustice and hatred. We must fight the Nazis wherever they are, against their book and magazines.”

His company has formed an endowment to support Jews from the former Soviet Union who settled in Germany. “We will help revive the Jewish presence in Germany.”

Bertelsmann is also committed to supporting UJA-Federation. This evening alone raised $2 million.

He indicated how the world had changed with a story about how he had to decline an invitation a couple of years ago for Shabbat dinner at the home of Rabbi Schneier. He said his father back in Dusseldorf had just been diagnosed with cancer.

“Give me his number,” Schneier said. “I will call and pray with him.”

“My father doesn’t speak English.”

“I speak German.”

“He’s Catholic.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

Next day his father called Thomas: “You won’t believe this, but a rabbi called from New York and we prayed together.”

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